Saturday, November 23, 2013

In District 12, Fire Catch You

Year: 2013
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Run Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Let me tell you something, once Mockingjay - Part 2 comes out (Of course they're splitting it into two parts. Studios always save that trick for the final book with the least plot.) they'd better be ready with that new Harry Potter film otherwise the vacuum of YA cinema will devour us all.

Traditionally the previews before a big hitter film like the second installment of the Hunger Games franchise are gonna be for the superstar blockbuster films. Studios know everyone and their kitchen sink is lining up to see Katniss' further exploits so what better opportunity to get the word out?

Unfortunately the trailers for the upcoming bland YA adaptation Divergent and the Aaron Eckhart vehicle where sexy Frankenstein fights CGI gargoyles (Mary Shelley is currently reanimating herself so she can spin in her grave) would indicate that dark times are ahead of us. But that is the future. For now we have Katniss. We have Peeta and Gale and Finnick and that is not a bad place to be.

No, not at all.

Before we begin let me just say that if you're gonna properly adapt a young adult adventure love triangle novel, you might as well throw in some pretty guys. You know, for the children. It's the least you could do. And the clumsily titled The Hunger Games: Catching Fire certainly delivers with newcomers Sam Claflin and Alan Ritchson as Finnick, the sprightly seafaring Tribute and Gloss, the hard-edged Career Tribute respectively.

I like a man who knows what he's doing with a hunting knife.

And returning cast members Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth (as Peeta, the baker's boy who's in love with Katniss and Gale, best friend and coal miner who is also in love with Katniss because just dealing with the tyrannical dystopian government isn't enough for one girl) are sporting new jawlines and beefed up frames. Apparently the bull hormones I spiked the Craft Services beverage table with have been doing their job.

Only Liam could make being dragged away by the Thought Police look like a modeling shoot.

Catching Fire begins, as it should, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) alone. The events of the previous Hunger Games have left her shaken, and she is haunted by her memories. She and Peeta, who used a star-crossed lover angle to win last year's games haven't spoken to each other in months. Although they act happy and in love for the cameras, Katniss' developing feelings for her friend Gale stand between them.

When Katniss and Peeta embark on a Victor's Tour of Panem (the dessicated husk of America, divided into 12 districts ruled by the iron fist of The Capitol), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warns Katniss that she has become a beacon of Hope for the districts. If she does anything to agitate the revolters, she will be summarily punished.

She predictably doesn't do a great job at this, but who cares, Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) have been brought onscreen within twelve seconds of each other and the resulting explosion of color and joy blocked out any other memories of the first half of the film.

I could make a Lady Gaga joke here, but that wouldn't deserve any Applause.

The second half of the film (much like the one before) takes place in the arena of the Hunger Games. For the 75th Annual Games (known as the third Quarter Quell), the contestants will all be chosen from the pool of surviving Victors of past games. That sounds awfully convenient, President Snow... I see what you did there.

So Katniss and Peeta prepare to fight for their lives yet again in an even more dangerous arena with trained and lethal opponents. It is in this segment that Catching Fire begins to cycle through plot points like a Rolodex, but they amazingly retain most of their power even while flying by like leaves in a tornado. The only scene that feels rushed to the point of oblivion is a moment with the elderly Tribute Mags (Lynn Cohen) that leans on the book a little too hard to find its emotional impact.

But all in all, Catching Fire is a definite improvement on the original film. The action sequences in the arena are exhilarating and, thankfully, visible. The ubiquitous shaky cam that haunts The Hunger Games is all but eradicated (save for a few scenes that needed to hide some even shakier CGI), and it doesn't hurt that the contestants are all teenagers and older, so the filmmakers didn't feel the need to obscure the more unsavory elements like killing children behind a wall of blur.

So the cinematography is a marked improvement although it isn't particularly adventurous and the colors in the Capitol training center are afflicted with a bad case of Teal and Orange Disease. The costuming is, as always, top notch, especially regarding the garish frivolity of Capitol attire.

I could spend my entire life posting and reposting pictures of Effie Trinkett.

Then there's the one thing that makes everything worth it. Despite the weird CGI patches, the rushed scenes that try to hit plot point from the book like a pinball, and some truly laughable acid makeup, the sterling foundation that keeps Catching Fire afloat is the impeccable cast.

Jennifer Lawrence is ever reliable as Katniss Everdeen and Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson embody their puppy love characters believably, but the standouts here are veterans of the craft. Stanley Tucci shines yet again as trashy TV host Caesar Flickerman, a one man embodiment of the entire TMZ staff and the shining light of the film is Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinkett.

Whereas in the first film she was merely a delightful embodiment of the vapid Capitol lack of self awareness, here she is the emotional lynchpin of the film as the cracks begin to show. Watching her break down at the Reaping as she calls Katniss' name while dressed like a swarm of butterflies is absolutely captivating. Who knew Elizabeth Banks could do drama? The casting director of Hunger Games did, apparently, and she steals the show every time she's onscreen.

Public speaking is the worst.

All these ingredients add up to a rather enjoyable popcorn movie for the 99 Percent. It explores the ideas of class disparity and the artificialities of reality TV in an interesting way, as viewed through the lens of a teenager who really didn't mean to get herself into this mess. And although it feels very much like an in-between movie setting up a Grand Finale, it leaves a sweet taste on the tongue and flies by despite its expansive book adaptation run time.

I would also like to mention that there is a shoutout to the That Is Mahogany meme, and the fact that any script writers could be so in touch with their online fan base is refreshing after years of tortuous disappointments. 

Enjoy the film, everyone and may the odds be ever in your favor.

TL;DR: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is on the whole better than its predecessor and an entertaining successor to the Harry Potter dynasty.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1211
Reviews In This Series
Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)

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